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God of the Gaps

This is an old "world wide cobweb" page, one of the first pages I wrote. Way back when I was young(ish). It was moved to this location September, 2008. To learn more about it read this article: End of an Era.

by Doug Craigen, PhD (physics)

Revision 1.0 - Feb. 9, 1996

At the root of a very large fraction of the arguments concerning science and religion is the persistent belief in the "God of the Gaps". This is the belief that the working of God can be seen in those things which science cannot explain.

It is curious that this belief has become so widespread. In essence, it is saying that God was unable to create a universe that could run on its own. It is like believing that the proof that a table was made by a carpenter is that you will find three legs providing most of the support, and the carpenter holding up the fourth corner. This would either be a poor carpenter, or a carpenter who ran out of materials. Similarly, believing in the God of the Gaps is believing in a God who actually isn't a very good creator.

Historically, the reason that science advanced and had such an impact in the West was the Christian belief that the world was created and sustained by a perfect, orderly and unchanging God. This meant that we could expect to find orderly and unchanging rules to describe the mechanics of how things happen.

Belief in God of the Gaps comes from a literal interpretation of poetic expressions in the Bible which talk about God controlling the world. Correct interpretation of the Bible requires the recognition of the type of literature that is being used in different portions. For example, you would not consider a historical narrative to be a teaching for how you should live. This would teach you that the way for a woman to have children is to get her father drunk so that she can lay with him (Lot's example), and many other wrong things. We must recognize the distinctions between narrative, poetry, proverb, parable ... or we will fall into many traps and contradictions.

Suppose that I told my wife I was going to hang a plant in the living room, and the following day we had this conversation:
HER: I thought you said you were going to hang the plant.
ME: Yes, and there it is on the hook.
HER: But you said you were going to do it. You're not doing it the hook is, you liar.
ME: But I put the hook there and hung the plant from it.
HER: Thats not what you said you'd do. You said nothing about a hook, you said you would do it.
ME: And I did, with a hook.
HER: Which means that you lied when you said that you'd do it. Besides, how do I know that you put the hook in and did the hanging?
ME: Its there isn't it? Did you do it?
HER: I didn't, but maybe you made someone else do it. Maybe a burglar broke in last night, and seeing the plant in the middle of the floor decided to hang it instead of robbing us. Maybe a sudden change in the earth's magnetic field twisted the hook into the ceiling and a hugh gust of wind carried the plant up onto it. How do I know that you did it?
ME: (exasperated) The plant is hanging, I did it, you just have to decide if you believe me.

As ridiculous as this conversation sounds, it is actually pretty close to what is said when people argue about things like whether the Bible is right when it says that God sends the rains. It doesn't mean that His hand carries the cloud along, it doesn't mean the wind comes from Him blowing just out of sight over the horizon... it doesn't mean that you will find a place that you are unable to explain the mechanics of the rain coming, it simply means that He is the one who did it.

All of this isn't to say that the Universe is like a large clock that God wound up and then left to do its own thing. There is an old Christian doctrine that has fallen out of fashion lately, the doctrine of God's Providence. This refers to God's ability to run the Universe to accomplish His purposes, without having to violate the rules of the Universe, without having to show humans everything He is doing. We crave miracles because God's handiwork seems much more evident in them. If my broken leg suddenly straightens out and mends itself, this looks a lot more like the work of God than submitting myself to a doctor's care. And yet even in the Bible, miracles are the exception. Instead we see His greatness demonstrated by many things coming together, often separated by thousands of miles, and hundreds or thousands of years. And yet, all of those things individually happen so 'naturally' that you would not have considered God to be in control of them unless you saw the final big picture.

Conclusion

As tempting as it may often be, it is a mistake to consider the failure of science to explain something as a proof of God's work. Such failures are nothing more or less than a demonstration of how far science has progressed, and a pointer to where some progress still needs to be made. Believing in a great creator means not doubting the quality of His creation. It is ironic that we often try to prove the existence of God by claims that essentially say He isn't such a great creator.